Sponsor-driven innovation: a people-centric approach

The innovation landscape is vast, and you can easily get lost in blockchain projects, virtual reality experiences and AI platforms. Choosing an innovation approach is an important part of your innovation strategy, it can guide you like a north star and makes it easier to stay on your innovation course. In this article we explain why we chose a human-centric approach at CampX.

Traditionally, the innovation landscape has been divided into two distinct approaches: technology/opportunity-driven and challenge/need-driven. The former involves closely monitoring new patents and technological advancements, potentially uncovering unforeseen opportunities. However, this approach comes with longer timelines and lower success rates. Meanwhile, the second approach focuses on addressing existing challenges, presenting a higher chance of success but taking the risk that your innovation department turns into a second R&D unit.  

2020 – 2023: starting from a need

From the start CampX used to work from a need-driven approach. With our Volvo Group engineers in the center of our innovation strategy, we only acted when they brought us internal challenges. This is a very strong approach to enforce innovation managers to only work on relevant subjects for the corporation. However, when we evaluated our portfolio, we realized that the most urgent needs do not always end up as the most successful collaborations.

In short, solely pushing a challenge-driven approach we overestimated our grasp on the innovation ecosystem, overestimated the things we knew about the problem and the solution, and underestimated the complexity of all the relations needed for a successful collaboration.

Modelling our innovation environment

Not completely satisfied with the need-driven approach, we decided we needed a new one. We explored different ways of finding the right approach and we ended up with the Cynefin framework.

The framework has different domains that describe how predictable a situation is. Each domain presents different challenges and requires a unique approach to innovation, from clear stability to chaotic unpredictability.

In the "clear" domain, everything is predictable, and decision-making is easy. The clarity gives you the freedom to run with every opportunity that the industry throws at you. In the "complicated" domain, experts can analyze different solutions to challenges, but it's harder to determine cause and effect. In this domain there is a need to say “no” to several opportunities and focus on knowledge and the prioritization of needs. In the "complexity" domain, there are unknown unknowns, so we must learn from failure in a collaborative environment. Cause and effect are only clear in hindsight, so we can't rely on theory and knowledge. In chaotic situations, we need to act quickly to restore order before moving into the complexity domain.

Where does startup – corporate collaboration reside?

We assessed our innovation activities through the lens of the Cynefin framework and realized that while some activities fall within the complicated domain, the majority resides in the domain of complexity. This realization underscored the inadequacy of relying solely on need-driven innovation as our innovation approach. While being need-driven addresses engineering challenges, it fails to account for the crucial human element in innovation.

After reflecting on successful collaborations instead of individual activities, we identified the same common thread: the human factor. Projects flourished when agile and empathetic innovation managers were able to create trust quickly between seasoned engineers and passionate startup founders.

We realized we needed to focus on the people. This led us to coin the term "sponsor-driven innovation" to emphasize the importance of experienced people -we call them sponsors- in the innovation process.

Accepting that corporate-startup collaboration is mostly unknown territory, is key to the transition from need-driven to sponsor-driven. It means we recognize our own shortcomings, that we might not have come as far as we had hoped, that our challenges cannot be solved by experts and technology alone, and that failing fast should be part of the process.

Failing fast in a large corporation requires a high-trust environment. We create that environment by focusing on empowerment of the people we work with, being as transparent as possible, being fair towards the startups and towards each other and by sharing our efforts, of which this article is an example.

When CampX matures as a startup initiative, we will most likely venture more into the complicated domain. We will turn “unknown – unknows” into “known-unknowns”, and we will have a better understanding of the cause-and-effect relationships. Hopefully, these insights will make startup collaborations even easier to set up, and our output will have even more impact.

Balancing the big picture with deep expertise

Achieving success in scaling innovation requires striking a delicate balance between the big picture and deep expertise. Embracing sponsor-driven innovation doesn't mean turning a blind eye to opportunities or neglecting our internal needs. Instead, it entails utilizing the keen insights of our innovation team to scout for opportunities in frontier areas such as autonomous driving, electromobility, sustainability, and software-defined vehicles, while engineers in these areas leverage their expertise to give us the focus we need to engage and scale startup collaborations.

In conclusion, finding your polestar amidst the vast innovation landscape requires more than just technological expertise or problem-solving skills. It demands a nuanced understanding of the human dynamics at play, acknowledging the pivotal role of experienced people and fostering collaborative ecosystems where diverse people come together to tackle complex challenges. By embracing a people-centric approach, we can navigate the innovation landscape with purpose and clarity, forging a path towards sustainable success.

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